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Saving the family farm

Friday, April 19, 2013 - Updated: 3:51 PM

We need more people like Boonville's Newell Wagoner, a layman who truly understands the importance of the family farm. As a longtime director of the Boonville-Oneida County Fair, Wagoner worked tirelessly for decades to tell agriculture's story, even though his professional background as an insurance agent made him an unlikely salesman when it came to a down-in-the-dirt lifestyle.

Nevertheless, Wagoner understood it. And he promoted it relentlessly. His keen insight is something more people across New York state need to grasp because the reality is that we need to maintain and grow our family farms. They are our lifeblood.

Progress has been made. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been receptive to changes needed to support agriculture, and legislative representatives like Assemblymen Bill Magee, D-Nelson, and Kenneth Blankenbush, R-Black River, have been steadfast supporters of programs to help farmers. In our own communities, farmers' markets have sprouted on many fronts, increasing in popularity and providing local farmers a low-overhead venue to sell their wares.

It's a start. But more must be done to make sure that the family farm is not lost.

According to the New York State Farm Bureau, New York farmers on average pay $20 more per acre in property taxes than the national farm average. A problem that must be addressed is these higher assessed values on farm land that are tugging at profit margins. While there's a 2 percent property tax cap on residential property, the cap on farm land assessments is 10 percent -- and that's been reached several times in recent years.

"It comes to a point where it's no longer affordable to keep things in production," said Jacob Schieferstine, Oneida County Farm Bureau president.

A bill co-sponsored by Assemblyman Blankenbush would reduce that 10 percent cap to 2 percent of the base value from the year before. It's a bill that should be approved and signed into law because without it, more family farms are at risk.

"It puts more pressure on [farmers] to sell their land to development," said Sauquoit farmer Vincent Johns. With the much lower tax cap on residential properties, he says, it "makes a lot more sense to put your land into housing."

For that reason, too, another bill that should be approved would increase the state's estate tax exemption limit on farms from $1 million to $5 million. That would to match the federal limit. As is, many farmers often have to sell part of their property to pay estate taxes when the farm is passed to them. That discourages the next generation from continuing the operation. Albany cannot allow that to happen.

That brings us back to Boonville's Wagoner. He wasn't born into farming, but most of his school pals were. He grew up in the village, but spent a lot of time with his farm buddies and saw the hard work -- and love -- that went into it. Most of all, he saw that the family farm is not only an economic engine for New York state, but a piece of America than we cannot afford to lose. We need to see it that way, too.

-- The Utica Observer-Dispatch


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